AUGUSTA, Maine — Asked to identify forms of privilege on Monday morning, middle school students from around the state started with what they see the most.
One girl spoke of being singled out because she wears “sweats and T-shirts” instead of dresses. Sitting cross-legged on the floor nearby, another teen said athletic ability, or lack thereof, leads to teasing. Another boy said students are targeted when they can’t afford prestigious clothing.
“People in the U.S. can just get in their car and drive to Wal-Mart and buy whatever they need,” said 12-year-old John O’Brien of Pittsfield, sporting a reddish crew cut and a bright green Warsaw Civil Rights Team T-shirt. “Other people can’t do that. They don’t have as much money.”
O’Brien and more than 500 middle and high school students from Biddeford to Presque Isle to Calais gathered on Monday at the Augusta Civic Center to share their experiences with the Maine Civil Rights Team Project, an initiative tasked with reducing bias-based harassment in schools.
Brandon Baldwin, who leads the Maine Civil Rights Team Project for Attorney General Janet Mills, greeted the students before breaking them into smaller groups, telling them that people of all racial identities, national origins and ancestries, religions and belief systems, genders, gender identities and gender expressions were welcome.
Of race in particular, he said, “It’s OK to acknowledge these racial differences, too, because acting like we don’t see race, that we’re colorblind, makes it impossible to address the real issues of racism. Besides, noticing racial differences has never been the problem … it’s what we do with that information that so often becomes the problem.”
Teams attended three rotating workshops throughout the day including “Cartoons, Superheroes and Telling Our Stories,” which featured writer, cartoonist and performance artist Vishavjit Singh. In another, teams from six elementary and middle schools discussed civil rights projects undertaken at their schools, such as a video created by Mt. View Middle School in Thorndike challenging students to pledge to stop using “the R word” to describe those with cognitive challenges, and “No Name Calling Week” at Whittier Middle School in Poland.
In a third session, members of the Lewiston High School Civil Rights Team led a discussion of white privilege.
Zakiya Sheikh, a senior at Lewiston High School, asked one group of teens what forms of privilege they had witnessed. Sheikh then encouraged them to recognize their own forms of privilege and the responsibility that comes with it, and she told them to “use your privilege” to work against it.
“That’s called being an ally and an advocate,” she said. “You’ll hear that a lot … If someone isn’t there to speak for themselves, you can speak up for them. It’s important.”
After the session, Sheikh said that although the session was about white privilege, identifying athletics and economic status as forms of privilege is one step in educating younger people about white privilege and other forms of civil rights.
“It’s just to get them to think,” she said. “That’s our main goal: To spark a conversation.”